Mystery Plays, Schools and Magickal Classes

Photo by Johannes Plenio via

Photo by Johannes Plenio via

by Christopher Penczak, Edited by Tina Whittle

I am enamored by the mysteries! On all levels, they embody the essence of the magickal journey because all things have their mystery, from the most philosophical to the seemingly mundane, for one mystery teaching is that nothing is mundane. But you have to have the experience of that mystery to truly understand it.

Preserve the mysteries. Reveal them often. These have been mantras for me. Not that I wish to profane the holy before those who would disrespect it, but the preservation and revelation come with my full realization that those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear will do so, and for those who don’t, the mysteries will remain occulted. But sometimes the very exposure to them through art, word, and music will trigger something deep and catalyze a change, making someone into a seeker and potential initiate.

Because I’m so enamored by the mysteries, I think a lot about how the mysteries have been transmitted in the past, in the present, and how it will happen in the future. I talk to many others involved in this work and do a fair amount of practical application of the ideas, adjusting and adapting as time goes on to see how best to serve the mysteries.

One of the things I have found helpful in the context of a teacher in the Temple of Witchcraft is to define the purpose of a Mystery School over other forms of magickal experience and education. Sometimes people join with expectations, and when the reality is different, they have some problems, no matter how much we might try to prepare people for the reality.

Ancient Mysteries

In the ancient world—and I think carried on in some forms of seasonal community today—we find the concept of the mysteries as a profound celebration. A powerful example influencing modern Witchcraft is the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece, devoted to Persephone and Demeter. Initiates were sworn to secrecy, and that secrecy has held, so we have only outer understandings and our best guesses to the meaning of the experiences. It’s not the only form, as we have it in Mithras, Orpheus, and Dionysus, as well as various mystery cults to goddesses and gods of Rome, Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, and likely versions across the world.

In such mystery traditions, there was usually a focus on a deity and their story as the central expression to the mystery. There would be lesser and greater mysteries, overt and deeper meanings and experiences, if not a grade system. Experiences would include travel through holy pilgrimage, cleanings, special diets often leading to fasting, challenges and ordeals to test determination and will, sacramental drinks and food, and some form of ritualistic art experience to transmit the gnosis of the mystery. The mystery play is believed to be a way to transmit the mysteries to the entire group, showing the mystery rather than relying on the poetry or actions alone. Words and symbols were conveyed while the audience members were in a trance state, allowing them reach the deep levels of being. Such a medium helps when the community is not necessarily receiving special philosophical training or might not possess even basic literacy (in the Eleusinian Mysteries, for example, one need only speak Greek and not be a murderer to enter). Otherwise, all genders, social statuses, and races were welcome. During the ritual, one experienced a revelation on the nature of reality, often the immortality of consciousness, and the process served in creating a map to the afterlife for the initiate, sharing specialized knowledge. This transformed death from a fearful to often joyous experience, creating a permanent change in perspective. Initiates of the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries, for example, were said to never fear death again.

Such mystery traditions could gather at regular intervals, again like those of Eleusus, or be attached to a more regularly meeting society with additional roles and responsibilities for initiates, like modern masonic orders and akin to modern covens in Witchcraft, or be attached to a philosophical school, with the preparatory lectures, learning, and exercises like an actual school, creating a fundamental change in life and lifestyle. Those who simply attend seasonal festivals and what traditional covens often call the Outer Court trainings are participating in the pre-mysteries, or even in some cases, the lesser mysteries of the yearly cycles.

A Mystery School

As a founder of a modern mystery school, I try to provide the information, experience, support, and context that both continues what I received and takes it to the next level in the development of community. While I technically learned through continued academic-esque classes alongside formal and informal coven experiences, I didn’t attend a fully realized school. My ethos is to create, write, or do the thing you wished you’d had so it will be formed for the next generation, and they can do the next step rather than reinvent from scratch as we often are forced to do. One of my key understandings in diving deeper into magick is that magickal study can magnify anything. You become more of whatever you are. If you are physically balanced and healthy, you truly become amazing. If you are spiritually unbalanced, or even harmful, it often magnifies that imbalance, so like ancient mysteries, we go through a cleansing, an inventory of self, and then a greater foundation to make ourselves aware and conscious of what we are magnifying and what we are healing. Otherwise, we can easily enter into magickal delusion.

Since magick, energy, and consciousness are not really talked about or broadly taught in our society, starting in a school, getting through the basics, and building a foundation can feel remedial at times. Older systems had an approach of breaking you down and building you back up again, which has its own problems. Modern ones often don’t, but having to start at the beginning can create resentment in more advanced students with previous study or self-study. Soon the wise see that not everyone has the same idea of what is foundational, and many “advanced” students have holes in their education. A good school closes the gaps and gives the necessary information and experiences so that students may more safely enter into mystery and magick. This can also be a self-correcting mechanism, as when the experiences and forces stop someone from getting to dangerous things because the necessary prerequisites can’t be met.

Some of the basics a mystery school will teach, show, and open experience to include:

Awareness of Other Reality—A living awareness and experience of a non-ordinary reality is key, and from that first point, much of the work is learning to deepen and make readily available this level of reality to the student.

Philosophical Foundation—We can’t live in this other reality 24/7, so we need context to be able to understand it intellectually and the skills to move back and forth through various levels of the “ordinary” and “non-ordinary” without going crazy, until such distinction no longer matters. Entering into the mysteries can break the rational mind without context, and many self explorers go crazy for a time, and can even shut down because of lack of context. That context can include the history of those in your lineage, those similar to you, and those different, furthering the understanding that it’s something as natural to us as any other aspect of life.

Energetic Well Being—Magickal training ideally includes levels of evaluation of personal energy, a cleansing of energy from thoughts and feelings that are unresolved as well as toxic influences from the environment, family, and past lives, freeing that psychic voltage for personal well-being and evolution. We begin to notice the unhealthy flows and patterns of energy that lead to harmful decisions and actions. Unhealthy patterns need to be dismantled and new healthy patterns established. We learn to seal the leaks to our energy and attention and build a stronger vessel, and learn to store life force for future magickal actions. Sometimes our energetic circuitry needs repair and eventual upgrade, and to do that, we have to learn how to consciously work with the flow of our energy, and how to tap into other sources of energy.

Change of Consciousness—Change of consciousness is ultimately about making a permanent change in perspective, integrating that otherworldly reality and being able to function within it, but also changing the baseline level of awareness into something more clear and distinct. It starts with learning things such as basic focus and concentration, developing a meditative mind. Disciplines are balanced with intuition, control, and flow until we understand the state of effortless effort and surrender to divine providence. That paradox is a deep part of all mystery training. Fused with changes from energetic well-being, we can see this as a form of soul crafting. New skills provide a foundation for leaps of consciousness into more expansive realms of awareness.

New Skills—Training will often be in occult forms of meditation, ritual, and psychic abilities, learning to apply the abilities to shift consciousness and manage vital energy. Through these skill sets, one can gain access to new nonlinear information, inspiration, spiritual entities, and dimensions of reality not normally accessed. Often it starts with items aligned with the lower rungs of a hierarchy of needs—the magick for everyday concerns and wants, simple healing. Some learn tricks and find power in impressing others, but all the smaller things lead to the greater magicks of evolution and insight, rather than parlor tricks. The skills work in tandem with everything else, providing framework to apply what is learned in practical, and mystical, ways. The secret societies and trades that influence and inspire Witches today were originally about passing skills—healers, blacksmiths, millers, horsemen, and masons.

Community—There is a bond that forms when people go through the same patterns of change. While everyone responds to it differently, successfully navigating it and graduating provides a link. We see it in all branches of the military, as well as college fraternities and sororities and secret societies. In a mystery school there can then be the sense of duty to the community, or a sense of service to pass on the things that helped you come to realization, understanding it takes those who have gone through it to pass it on to others to keep the learning and growing as a cycle that does not end after one generation.

We could add a lot more steps and details, but these are some of the basic points showing how a mystical school can approach things, as opposed to other settings of learning magick or experiencing the mysteries.

Classes, Workshops, and Intensives

In a general magick class, the intentions are much less intense, though there can be a lot of points that overlap, depending on the class. Today, magickal classes and workshops can include simply sharing techniques in a formal way or an informal way. Often we hold space and share an experience and our own stories and ideas. Teachers can have a formal class plan and syllabus of topics to cover, or be more freeform in the group. Some classes have a practicum experience part, and others just have conversation. Some magick teachers I know highly object to leading others through an experience or ritual publicly, because there is not the same bond, and safety, as with someone who has made a formal commitment to study with that teacher. Not having that taboo when I started, I never thought about it until much further along on the path, and the cat was out of the bag at that point, and I found ways to do deep workings with new people safely and effectively. It was all about process and setting space and intention. Having many years of experience with my share of mistakes doesn’t hurt now either. Those who attend classes often have a sense of bonding and community, but it’s more temporary than initiatory mystery experience. Weekend intensives can have an initiatory quality, but if they are not held by a tradition, school, or established custom, they can fizzle. I can’t tell you how many weekend intensives and festivals I’ve attended, and led, where the participants bonded deeply, feeling they had found family and “tribe” and then slowly drifted, as the one weekend wasn’t quite the bond they thought it was, even though it was stronger than most things previous to their experience. It can slowly fade or end in drama, which in its own way, too, can be initiatory.

People can enter a formal mystery tradition from those experiences and feel that the held traditions and customs are too stifling, preferring the freedom and flexibility of a weekend, often not realizing the drawback to that. Neither is better or worse, depending on what you want, but you can’t expect the commitment of a formal community without making that same level of commitment yourself. Many people, assuming the evening and weekend magickal class is all that modern magick has to offer these days, leave Paganism and Witchcraft and seek a deeper mystery and community in Buddhism, Hinduism, and African Traditional Religions. Though held unbroken much longer, they offer a different perspective of the mysteries. I look to the regeneration of the Pagan, Goddess, and Witchcraft mysteries where I am, with the growing communities I experience.

In the end, it’s always good to ask yourself, and others, what you are getting into and why, and reflect upon the answers. If you seek the mysteries with a true heart, even outside of anything formal or traditional, you will find the mysteries. Some will have support. Some will not. Some will have context. Others will make their own context. And this, too, is part of the mysteries. Preserve the mysteries. Reveal them—and experience them—often!

Temple of Witchcraft